On Friday 2nd October, the Keynes and Global societies were fortunate enough to host Professor Richard Wilkinson via Zoom, presenting on “Inequality and Social Dysfunction”. Wilkinson is a Professor Emeritus at the University of Nottingham, the founder of the Equality Trust and co-author of The Spirit Level and The Inner Level.

Wilkinson began his talk by presenting two differing perspectives on the ramifications of inequality; the first (naïve view) assumes that inequality is only a problem if it creates poverty or differences that seem unfair. The second, and according to Wilkinson, more accurate view is that the effects of inequality harm everyone, with income inequality being proportional to the number and severity of societal problems. Using factors ranging from life expectancy to levels of trust, Wilkinson presented graphs which plotted  an index of social problems against inequality in developed countries to show a correlation that was hard to dispute. He then did the same with US states, and the result; almost identical. Yet he stated confidently that if the same were done using GDP or even GDP per capita this relationship would not be so apparent.

Wilkinson went on to explain the causation behind this correlation. With the aid of robust statistics and graphs, Wilkinson argued it all comes down to high levels of inequality leading to a steeper social hierarchy and by extension, increased status anxiety for people at all levels of income. He explained that increased status anxiety can have two effects. Firstly, it can lead to an overwhelming feeling of inferiority which tends to manifest itself as depression and anxiety, consequently increasing drug and alcohol abuse. Secondly, it can encourage mania and narcissistic traits related to inflated self-perceptions of power or a heightened focus on achieving social dominance and recognition. Both these results have an undesirable effect on the quality of human relationships, something that experts suggest has an impact on an individual’s physical health, on par with whether or not you smoke. This detrimental impact on the quality of human relationships also impedes levels of trust within a society which leads directly to increased crime. Wilkinson even showed data indicating that increased inequality causes increased debt as people take measures to affirm or improve their social status by purchasing expensive products.

Wilkinson went on to address arguments in defence of hierarchical, unequal societies. The most prevalent of these was the seemingly misinformed belief that inequality is necessary to drive innovation, hard work and productivity. Wilkinson claimed to have disproved this theory, showing a graph suggesting that more unequal countries have fewer patents per head than their more equal counterparts. He also dismissed the idea that human societies have been unequal and hierarchical throughout history by expressing the fact that we have lived in highly egalitarian societies for over 90% of human history.

During a series of wide ranging and well thought out questions, Wilkinson suggested ways of tackling inequality, stating that although increasing taxes was a viable method, tackling the problem before taxation through increased employee representation and Trade Unions was perhaps even more important. Having been questioned, Wilkinson concluded the meeting by emphasising the frustration  he felt on account of his work not being taken seriously enough. Overall, we are extremely thankful for what was an excellent and truly eye-opening talk on a subject deeply rooted in both economic and political thought across the globe.

Photo by Saeima via Wikimedia Commons is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0